The government’s plans for encouraging house-building have received a warm welcome from specialist solicitors, despite suspicions that ministers are ducking the challenge of radical reforms to planning law. 

A long-awaited white paper, entitled fixing our broken housing market presents a package of measures aimed at meeting the need to increase the number of new homes in England from an average of 160,000 each year to the 275,000 or more needed to keep up with the growing population and demographic changes. 

Proposals include: 

  • Consulting on measures to tackle abuses of leasehold;
  • Cutting the time allowed between planning approval and the start of building from three to two years;
  • 100% land registration by 2025, with data about ownership openly available;
  • Requiring local authorities to produce up-to-date plans for housing demand; and
  • Help for smaller building firms challenging major developers, including support for off-site construction methods.

Law Society president Robert Bourns said the white paper ‘puts so many of the issues that solicitors see with their clients on a daily basis front and centre, and is an encouraging signal that the government will renew efforts to tackle some of these challenges’.

Any steps to remove unnecessary complexity or pitfalls for the more than four million households renting are particularly welcome, he said. ‘Likewise the commitment to reinvigorating commonhold and addressing abuses of leasehold tenure through the Law Commission identifies an area where careful changes could make a real improvement to the operation of the housing market.

‘We also welcome the commitment to achieve a comprehensive Land Register by 2030. This will be a important improvement for home buyers and those needing information about land and property ownership.’

Bourns described as ‘really positive’ the government’s ambition to increase house building through improved planning law but said the detail of these complex laws must be well-thought-out. Otherwise changes could create ambiguity and court actions undoing any gains ‘as previous attempts at reform in this area have found’.

Specialist environmental solicitor Stephen Sykes, chairman of Ashfield Solutions Group, welcomed the white paper. ‘It suggests the government definitely understands the problem.’ He described the proposals for increasing local authorities’ involvement as ‘quite a bold breakthrough’. 

As widely predicted, the white paper shies away from relaxing green-belt planning restrictions, stating that authorities should amend green-belt boundaries ‘only when they can demonstrate that they have examined fully all other reasonable options for meeting their identified development requirements’. These must include making effective use of suitable brownfield sites, where the white paper says the presumption should be that land is suitable for housing unless there are ‘clear and specific reasons to the contrary’. 

Sykes said that sacrificing the green belt would have been an ‘easy win’ and welcomed the white paper’s focus on brownfield, and on tackling ‘land-banking’ by large developers. However he warned that ministers are ‘kicking the can down the alley’ on greenbelt reform. ‘At some point that whole question will have to be revisited.’

Rob Beiley, partner at international firm Trowers & Hamlins commented that local authorities will be disappointed that there is no immediate prospect of the relaxation of the Housing Revenue Account debt cap, which he said has prevented councils from creating affordable homes in significant numbers. ‘However, councils will be heartened by the support offered in the white paper to the continued use of new models (including housing companies and joint ventures with developers and housing associations) to develop housing for sale and market rent.’